Iowa coach who helped launch NFL careers is slain
Associated Press Writer
PARKERSBURG, Iowa – Several hundred mourners gathered Wednesday at a rural Iowa stadium named for a popular high school football coach who authorities said was gunned down by a former player who was to have been taken to a psychiatric ward days before.
Pastors told those who attended a candlelight vigil to pray and seek God’s guidance following the death of Ed Thomas, who helped launch several NFL careers and was remembered by players, friends and neighbors as a deeply religious husband and father.
“Lord, we summon you as people and a community that is bruised and battered,” said Phillip Jensen, pastor at First Congregational Church, where Thomas served as a church elder. Parkersburg recently commemorated the first anniversary of a tornado that wiped out about a third of the town, killing six people and destroying the high school and football field.
Most of the school has been rebuilt and the field was named for Thomas, 58, who died early Wednesday after being shot in front of students in the weight room at Aplington-Parkersburg High School, where he coached for 34 years in the rural community of 1,800 residents 80 miles northeast of Des Moines.
“In the midst of the shadow of death, we pray that you will be a healer of wounds,” Jensen told those in the crowd at the vigil, who held hands and bowed their heads.
Mark Becker, who was to have gone to a hospital psychiatric ward after allegedly leading police on a high-speed chase Saturday, is accused of unloading several rounds into Thomas as the coach held an offseason workout with students Wednesday morning, said Kevin Winker, assistant director of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation. Becker was arrested in the driveway of his parents’ home soon afterward.
School was not in session and Becker did not threaten the students, Winker said. Authorities did not release details about the gun that was used.
Winker said he couldn’t discuss what Becker’s motive might have been or what he was doing in the days leading up to the shooting.
“Motive is one of those things we’re looking into,” Winker said.
Thomas’ shooting stunned the community and reverberated through NFL circles, where he also was remembered as much for his faith as his winning record.
“His legacy for many will be associated with his tremendous success as a football coach,” said Green Bay Packers linebacker Aaron Kampman. “However, I believe his greatest legacy comes not in how many football games he won or lost but in the fact that he was a committed follower of Jesus Christ.”
One of Thomas’ sons said he was most proud of his involvement in church. Aaron Thomas thanked the community for its support.
“Obviously, with the shocking events of today, nothing can prepare you for what our family and the community is going through,” Aaron Thomas said at an afternoon news conference.
He also asked people to keep Becker’s family in their thoughts.
“We ask that people pray for them as well, as they are also going through a lot,” he said.
Named the NFL’s 2005 high school coach of the year, Ed Thomas amassed a 292-84 record and two state titles in 37 seasons as a head coach – 34 of them at Aplington-Parkersburg. He coached several players who went on to the NFL, including Kampman, Jacksonville Jaguars center Brad Meester, Detroit Lions defensive end Jared DeVries, and Denver Broncos center Casey Wiegmann.
Meester said he revered Thomas almost as a father figure, and that his high school coach got the most out of each of his players.
“It’s just the stuff that he taught every one of us, stuff that I’ll never forget,” Meester said in a statement. “The value of hard work, pride in what you do and just caring about the guy beside you and that’s what he did.”
Becker is charged with first-degree murder and was being held in Butler County jail. The sheriff’s office said Becker did not have an attorney and a court appearance hadn’t been scheduled. Phone messages seeking comment from family members were not immediately returned.
Cedar Falls Police Chief Jeff Olson said Wednesday that Butler County deputies had arrested Becker on Saturday after a chase through two counties. Deputies agreed to take him to a hospital psychiatric ward and request that Cedar Falls police be notified when he could be released. Cedar Falls police didn’t hear anything more.
“I don’t know what happened,” Olson said. “I don’t know why we didn’t hear back.”
Winker said Becker would not comment on what treatment Becker received or why Cedar Falls wasn’t notified of his Tuesday release. Becker spent Tuesday night at his parents’ house, according to Jeff Jacobson, a special agent with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.
Gov. Chet Culver, who was once a high school teacher and coach in Des Moines, said he was stunned by the shooting.
“The state and national coaching fraternity has suffered a devastating loss,” Culver said in a statement.
DeVries, a defensive end with the Lions, looked shaken after being informed Thomas died.
“Aside from my own father and mother, no one had a more profound impact on my life than Coach Thomas,” DeVries said in a statement. “Heaven just got a great football coach and an even better man.”
Besides Aaron Thomas, Ed Thomas also is survived by his wife, Jan, and another adult son, Todd.
Associated Press writers Michael J. Crumb, Melanie S. Welte and Luke Meredith in Des Moines contributed to this report.